Why a “Christocentric” View of God is Inadequate: God’s Self-Portrait, Part 5
I’m currently working through a series of blogs that will flesh out the theology of the ReKnew Manifesto, and I’m starting with our picture of God, since it is the foundation of everything else. So far I’ve established that Jesus is the one true portrait of God (See: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). If you want to know what God looks like, look to Jesus (Jn 14:7-9).
As true as that last statement is, however, there is a problem with it. Over the last half century, and largely owing to the influence of Karl Barth, an increasing number of theologians and exegetes have affirmed something like this statement while nevertheless arriving at widely divergent perspectives of God. Indeed, having read hundreds of theological works claiming to be “Christocentric,” I have to confess that they’ve often left me wondering what was distinctly Christocentric about the view of God they espoused.
The most fundamental reason for this, I believe, is that the picture of God that one derives from a Christocentric approach depends entirely on what aspect of Jesus’ life, teachings and/or actions a particular theologian emphasizes. To illustrate, I’ve read several conservative scholars who attempt to reconcile the genocidal portrait of God in the conquest narratives with the God revealed in Jesus by emphasizing Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, which they (mistakenly) think involved Jesus acting violently. It seems to me that if a Christ-centered approach doesn’t rule out a genocidal portrait of God, we have to seriously wonder what view of God it would rule out? If a Christocentric portrait of God can be genocidal, in other words, we have to wonder what real difference the allegedly Christ-centered approach has made?
The fact that Christocentric approaches can arrive at such divergent pictures of God leads me to the conclusion that this approach is simply too general. We must go further and ask: What is it about Jesus that reveals God? What is the common denominator in Jesus’ life, teachings and actions that provides us with the definitive revelation of God? And the moment we raise this question, we discover that the New Testament has provided us with an answer when it declares, “God is love” (1Jn 4:8). This passage doesn’t just teach that “God is loving.” It rather provides us with the very definition of God. “Love” is not just a verb that God does, in other words, it is the noun that God is. From eternity to eternity, God’s essence is love. This is the core of what Jesus reveals about God.
Still, while this is certainly an improvement on the overly general Christocentric approach, it still leaves too much room for ambiguity. For as was true of Jesus’ life, teachings and actions, “love” can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways, resulting in a multitude of conflicting portraits of God. One of the most obvious examples of this is Augustine’s “rule of love.” While he stated that the interpretation of the Bible should be based on the “twofold love of God and our neighbor,” he also taught that loving enemies does not rule out torturing and killing them if one is “justified” in doing so. We thus have to wonder what real difference his “rule of love” makes if it doesn’t rule out these sorts of behavior? So too, Augustine taught that the affirmation that “God is love” is perfectly compatible with the view that God predestined most humans to eternal hell before they were born. We thus have to wonder, if the affirmation that “God is love” doesn’t at least rule out this sort of unthinkably cruel behavior, what behavior would it rule out? And if it doesn’t rule out any specific behavior, we can only conclude that the affirmation that “God is love” means nothing.
Given the ambiguity of the word “love,” I submit that we must go still further and ask: Does the New Testament supply us with a more specific understanding of the kind of love that captures the character of the God who is revealed in Jesus? And the answer, fortunately, is that it does. In a number of different ways, the New Testament teaches that the central way Jesus revealed that “God is love” was by freely sacrificing himself on the cross. “This is how we know what love is,” John writes, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 Jn 3:16, cf. I Jn 4:9). To know what “love” is, we must not look to our fallen intuitions, experiences or reasoning process. We must rather keep our eyes fixed on the cross, when Jesus refused to engage in violence to crush his enemies but chose to instead offer up his life for them. So too, Paul says that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
In fact, throughout the NT the cross is held up as the quintessential revelation of God and the thematic center of everything Jesus was about. In my forthcoming book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, I provide over 60 pages of evidence for this, but my case can be simply summarized by this short formula:
Jesus is the definitive revelation of God (Heb. 1:1-3)
God is love (1 Jn 4:8)
Love is defined by Jesus’ offering up his life on the cross (I Jn 3:16)
Jesus is the definitive revelation that God is cross-like love
While Jesus’ teaching that we see the Father when we see him (Jn 14:9) was true at every moment of his life, the character of the Father that he reveals is most unambiguously disclosed when he offered up his life on the cross for a race of people who could not have deserved it less. The cross thus perfectly culminates, expresses and weaves together what Jesus was about – namely, revealing the true, enemy-embracing, non-violent, self-sacrificial, loving character of God.
In conclusion, I am arguing that, rather than affirming a merely Christocentric approach to God, we must affirm a cross-centered or “crucicentric” approach to God. All our thinking about God should be done through the lens of the cross, understood as the thematic center of everything Jesus was about. As such, we should consider the “crucified Christ” to be “the key for all the divine secrets of Christian theology,” as Jürgen Moltmann put it in The Crucified God.